The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets
edited by David Yezzi
Swallow Press, 360 pages, $19.95
In his introduction, editor and contributor David Yezzi suggests that this collection reconciles the traditional division in the poetry world between those who prefer classical forms and those who favor free verse. According to Yezzi, these thirty-five new poets (although many of the authors included here stretch the meaning of newcomer) have accomplished that balance within a “climate of extremes,” as they choose to write their poems utilizing a variety of forms.
“The old battle lines,” as he calls them, between the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary, have become entrenched. Arbitrary divisions lead to dogmatism, and from there, he says, there can be no forward movement.
Yezzi makes a good point about entrenchment. For many free-verse poets, the strictures of traditional form—the seemingly arbitrary and rigid adherence to line length, syllable counts, and end rhymes—often seem forced instead of found. Conversely, traditionalists bemoan the seeming “anything goes” milieu of the free-verse writers as sloppy, syntactically confused, loose lines.
Yezzi describes the poets of the Swallow Anthology as possessing a “unified sensibility,” which he further describes as “tradition, enlivened by innovation.” That the poets in the Swallow Anthology write sometimes in free verse and sometimes in traditional forms, however, isn’t, in and of itself, quite enough to declare détente. Plenty of modern poets move easily between free and formal verse. The issues they face are the same for poets everywhere: Because free verse is not obligated by elements of rhyme and traditional meter, expectations can be even higher that the exactly right word, phrase, and line length must be found. While formal verse must also demonstrate precision, its inherent constraints are both a limitation and an opportunity. Whether there will one day be a new poetic style that evenly blends these two remains to be seen.
There are many fine poems in the new Swallow Anthology. While it may not be evidence of a new world order of poetry, the anthology is a pleasing collection of both traditional and free-verse poetry. From Morri Creech’s opening stanza in “World Enough”:
Swift as a weaver’s shuttle, time unspools
Its hours in glistening threads
And rapturous polychromes—in the arc of leaf
Or feather toward the pools
Of that deep shade to which the morning weds
Its brilliance, in a brief . . .
to A.E. Stallings’ rhyming tercets in “Asphodel”:
Across just such a field the pale shade came
Of Proud Achilles who had preferred a name
And short life to a long life without fame
these poets demonstrate that the real issue is not whether a poem’s style is formal or free, but whether it is compellingly written. Issues of language, voicing, and pacing exist for all poets in whatever form they choose to exercise.